Ghost of the Hardy Boys: The Writer Behind the World’s Most Famous Boy Detectives, by Leslie McFarlane, with an introduction by Marilyn S Greenwald, Godine, 304 pp, $25.95, ISBN: 978-1567927177
In his book Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, John McPhee tells a story germane to the book under review. McPhee’s uncle was a publisher “and on their list was the Silver Chief series, about a sled dog in the frozen north”. McPhee continues,
That dog was my boyhood hero. [He was mine too.] One day, I was saddened to see in a newspaper that Jack O’Brien, the author of those books, had died. A couple of years passed. I went into high school. The publishing company became Holt, Rinehart & Winston, and my uncle Bob’s office moved to New York. When I was visiting him there one day, a man arrived for an appointment, and Uncle Bob said, “John, meet Jack O’Brien, the author of Silver Chief.” I shook the author’s hand, which wasn’t very cold. After he had gone, I said, “Uncle Bob, I thought Jack O’Brien died.”
Uncle Bob said, “He did die. He died. Actually, we’ve had three or four Jack O’Briens. Let me tell you something, John. Authors are a dime a dozen. The dog is immortal.”
In the same way that Silver Chief was immortal, so too are the Hardy Boys. As far as authors go, McPhee was making a point about working with Roger Straus of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Straus being a publisher who shared Uncle Bob’s view of writers. In this wry memoir, much more is written in the same vein about Leslie McFarlane’s publisher, Edward Stratemeyer, who thought, at least at the beginning of McFarlane’s career of ghostwriting for him, that a writer was worth a hundred dollars a book, “flat rate, no royalty”, but “with the prospect of further lucrative assignments to follow”.
Stratemeyer, whose headquarters was in East Orange, New Jersey, just up the road from McPhee in Princeton, had once written books himself but eventually decided it was more lucrative to just write the plots for books ‑ he specialised in juvenile adventure stories such as The Rover Boys, Bomba the Jungle Boy, Tom Swift and Dave Fearless; The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys were still to come ‑ and hire writers to write the actual words telling the stories. In our day, James Patterson went him one better and realised that instead of beefing up the bare bones plot he was working on, he could just send that in and now he’s the world’s bestselling author.
Leslie McFarlane (1902-1977), a native Ottawan of Irish descent, was not the same kind of writer as Stratemeyer and Patterson (Stratemeyer was into the money; Patterson is into churning out stories and, in fairness, is very generous with his money). McFarlane was a wordsmith. As Marilyn S Greenwald, author of a biography of McFarlane, The Secret of the Hardy Boys, writes in her introduction to this memoir:
As I continued to read about McFarlane’s passion for writing and the joy he took from it, a seemingly unrelated quote came to my mind from, of all people, the German American high-wire artist Karl Wallenda: “Being on the tightrope is living; everything else is waiting.” That seemed to me to sum it up: Writing was Leslie McFarlane’s life.
Annie Dillard made the same kind of comparison but between writing and stunt flying in The Writing Life, where she wrote about Dave Rahm’s incredible artistry in the air. The same can be said about Marc-André Leclerc, the Canadian mountain climber portrayed in the film The Alpinist.
However, all three of these men died in the service of their art or passion. I don’t know of too many writers who died in the service of theirs unless they were political prisoners (an increasingly common problem) or you want to count suicides. (Sometimes before writing, however, one does feel there’s a tightrope out there, in the soul or mind, at least.) Leslie McFarlane might have scoffed at these comparisons though; he just wanted to make some money while writing his own stuff, and he loved writing so much he was willing to ghostwrite to do it.
But first he was a newspaper reporter in small towns in Canada and America. He was working at The Springfield Republican in Massachusetts in the spring of 1926, assigned to “the hotel beat”, which meant he mostly interviewed celebrities passing through, when he came across a strange ad in the trade journal Editor and Publisher:
Experienced Fiction Writer Wanted
to Work from
McFarlane comments: “I considered my experience, which didn’t take long.” He had written some stories for the magazine Adventure, but lately his stories were boomeranging back to him. His greatest success had been a twenty-thousand-word story in Adventure which he was trying to adapt into a play. “There is a great difference, I found, between the creation of a small piece of fiction in which the characters are free to roam all over the place and the construction of a play which confines them to a one-room trading-post.”
Stratemeyer’s ad and subsequent response saved McFarlane from his artistic dilemma. He dropped the play and read the materials the publisher had sent, which included material written by “Roy Rockwood”. one of McFarlane’s favourite childhood authors. As he read, McFarlane was greatly disappointed that the quality of his childhood reading had fallen to such a low, a common experience of aging. Rockwood’s Dave Fearless seemed much worse than the Bomba, the Jungle Boy volumes McFarlane had read, but then he realised the two Rockwoods weren’t the same person. “Not everyone could write Bomba, the Jungle Boy, but almost anyone could be Roy Rockwood ‑ including me.” So McFarlane signed on with Stratemeyer after a trial run.
Many colourful characters enliven this memoir. One of the most colourful, for me at any rate, is one who on the surface is the least colourful, the newspaper’s only literary critic. “I can’t even recall his name,” McFarlane writes.
A letter of inquiry to the current secretary of the Republican evoked a reply to the effect that no one at the paper can recall his name either. Apparently after fifty years the quiet little fellow has vanished from the records. Maybe there is a lesson in this for book reviewers everywhere.
Be that as it may, McFarlane regales the reader with the story of how this reviewer (whom he dubs “Emerson C. Lowell”, the C for Cabot) at McFarlane’s request, digs up the story of Edward Stratemeyer, while taking the opportunity to give McFarlane two books to review. In their next meeting he tells McFarlane he is being too tough in his reviews, and that Stratemeyer had taken over from Horatio Alger, though there was some controversy about the way he did it. Lowell also said Stratemeyer was known for running a “fiction factory” that librarians hated, so they banned its products, leading, of course, to a dramatic increase of sales. Lowell is very depressed about the state of literature in America, so McFarlane initially doesn’t tell him why he wants to know about Stratemeyer.
McFarlane first writes Dave Fearless Under the Ocean, typing up two chapters a day, sends it off, gets a hundred-dollar cheque and another outline, this one for Dave Fearless in the Black Jungle. He decides to quit the newspaper and go back to Canada: “By working full time for the Stratemeyer Syndicate I could easily whack out four books a month, double my income and get some sleep at night. There would even be time to spare for higher endeavors, literature in the Joseph Conrad vein, for example.”
So back to Canada McFarlane goes, to a summer cabin on Lake Ramsey three hundred miles north of Toronto. There he lives in freedom, bangs out a chapter a day of Dave Fearless adventures, then spends the rest of his time on his own stories for Adventure. A packet of material surprises him in the mail: it is Lowell’s research on Stratemeyer, how he wrote many books in the Horatio Alger vein, then, being more a sales genius than a wordsmith, he finally realised hardcover juveniles for fifty cents was his ticket to wealth, and you didn’t do one-offs as Alger did, with a different hero for each book; no, you had the same hero and wrote series and you wrote three volumes from the get-go, each book giving snippets of the one to follow. “Triple treats of this kind,” McFarlane writes, “became known as breeders. They presented the young reader with a fullblown series as a fait accompli from the first volume into which he stuck his nose.”
Stratemeyer did face a battle from Franklin K. Matthews, chief librarian of the Boy Scouts of America, who launched a campaign against Stratemeyer’s fiction factory with an article, “Blowing Out the Boys’ Brains”. He had the Scouts publish their own books about nature and being good citizens and so forth.
For a while the Stratemeyer products registered a loss in sales, but only for a while. Eventually, as the volunteers drifted off into other causes (their indignation span being notoriously short), sales recovered. It only proved that you can lead a kid to an approved book but you can’t make him read it. Especially if you tell him it is good for him.
If Emerson C Lowell thought this information would discourage McFarlane from writing hack juvenile fiction so that he didn’t have to work at a newspaper, he was wrong. However, it wasn’t always roses. McFarlane’s serious stories kept returning and the “butcher, the grocer and the man who sold beer weren’t exactly baying for my blood but they were making discouraging noises”. Just when he was at his low point, a magazine called Everybody’s did accept a story for $500. And then Stratemeyer came up with a new idea. He had noticed that detective stories were becoming popular and so he proposed a new series. Two brothers in high school, Frank and Joe Hardy, would solve local mysteries, sometimes in cooperation with their famous detective father, Fenton Hardy. They would have three friends: Chet, the funny kid; Biff Hooper, the athletic one; and Tony Prito, “who would presumably tag along to represent all ethnic minorities”. In addition, Frank and Joe would tolerate the presence of two girls, Iola Morton (Chet’s sister) and Callie Shaw, but nothing beyond “wholesome friendship” would be portrayed.
McFarlane then made a (relatively) momentous decision for the world of juvenile fiction. He had been banging out Dave Fearless stuff as fast as he could and was entirely sick of it. He decided he would try a bit harder for the Hardy Boys, would throw in the occasional two-syllable word and spice things up with a lot of good food (“boys are always hungry”) and humor. This didn’t really make sense, McFarlane acknowledges, not from the point of view of a fiction factory. But McFarlane, though willing to do hack work, was a writer.
Writers, however, aren’t always sensible. Many of them enjoy writing so much that they would go on doing it even if deprived of bylines and checks, which is why agents are born. The enjoyment implies doing the best one can with the task in hand, even it if is merely an explanatory letter to the landlord. (There is no special virtue in this. Writers just can’t help it.)
. . . . I decided again the course of common sense. I opted for Quality.
In the meantime, however, summer was over, and McFarlane had to get back to civilisation before he froze to death, so he went home to Haileybury.
Much of the rest of this memoir is a remembering of Haileybury, a mining town that had settled down into respectability with a few rough edges, and another small town, Sudbury. McFarlane keeps on writing Hardy Boy books but also returns to journalism, even as he sends out Conradesque short stories. Which keep coming back. In these chapters we meet some real characters, such as: Bill Mason, a blustery newspaper boss who specialises in invading a small towns and obliterating the competition, who appears to hate reporters and demands they be available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; Cushing, an editor who tells McFarlane that if he’s not careful he’ll become one of those who is both a lousy reporter and lousy writer; and a managing editor known only as Beckett, who has worked for many newspapers, can dictate copy-ready stories, and who encourages McFarlane to quit being a reporter and work full-time on his writing.
McFarlane also has a brief encounter with Hemingway, living in Toronto at the time:
The paper [the Toronto Star Weekly] once sent Hemingway up to Sudbury [where McFarlane was working at the time] on a wild-goose story about a man who said he had discovered a huge coal deposit right beside a nickel mine.”
I told Hemingway, just another Toronto reporter, that the whole thing was a fraud, so he went back to the city and salvaged the trip by doing a piece about Sudbury.
McFarlane says, “It was a good piece, too,” but the problem was Hemingway mentioned “seeing a lot of girls on the streets”. and the local residents took that to mean he was saying their daughters were “training for whorehood”, when the reality was there was nothing much else to do in Sudbury but walk around.
McFarlane also says something that is relevant to our interesting times. “I think it matters,” he writes, “when a community loses its local paper because when it does, it loses part of its soul, a part that no one-lung radio station or no resident correspondent for the big city daily a hundred miles away can ever retrieve.”
As the years roll by, McFarlane continues writing Hardy Boy books, but instead of being a reporter, he also writes, and sells, his creative work, stories, novels, screenplays (one of which is nominated for an Oscar), and even directs a documentary or two. But the Depression hits, so, although he’d rather not write any more juvenile fiction, he continues to do so until he has written twenty-one of them, the last, The Phantom Freighter, being in 1946. He also has some tug-of-wars with Stratemeyer that remind one of current political battles, perhaps proving they are not new just more venomous.
The major tug-of-war is about how McFarlane writes about authority figures. Stratemeyer complains that he makes the policeman buffoons
But I had my own thoughts about teaching youngsters that obedience to authority is somehow sacred. Where did it say that kids shouldn’t size up people for themselves? Was it written in the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, the British North America Act and the Constitution of the United States that everyone in authority was inflexibly honest, pious and automatically admirable? Would civilization crumble if kids got the notion that the people who ran the world were sometimes stupid, occasionally wrong and even corrupt at times? Was it a favor to let them grow up dumbly assuming that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds? Wouldn’t every kid be the better for a little shot of healthy skepticism at an early age?
McFarlane still had to tone down this philosophy, but he was able to introduce some colour into the narrative when Stratemeyer included a maiden aunt, Gertrude, in an outline. McFarlane takes this and runs with it, creating a well-loved character who is always bawling out everyone for not being up to snuff, but who, of course, has a heart of gold. Stratemeyer never complimented McFarlane on this character ‑ “You could always count on him to keep his head and steel himself against giving writers fancy notions about their importance” ‑ but he always included her in his outlines from then on.
Much to his chagrin, McFarlane, years after he has stopped writing Hardy Boys books, is told that the books have been toned down, “gutted from end to end” and made even shorter than they used to be. Aunt Gertrude has been enfeebled and the books have no more flavour. He also comes to realise, because of his son, how popular the series was and how much money ‑ in the millions ‑ the Stratemeyer Syndicate had made from the books. But he remains philosophical about it:
Writing is not a profession on which one embarks under duress. No one forces anyone to become a writer. No one even asks him. He writes because he enjoys the profession. It follows, then, that if he is doing something he enjoys he should not complain if the finanacial rewards are less then he expected or thinks he deserves.
I am tempted to argue with him on this, but he is right from a purely practical point of view, and McFarlane was a practical man. His memoir is a lot of fun to read, especially if one was a fan of Frank and Joe Hardy and their adventures and the powerful Aunt Gertrude. I was at first a bit disappointed by the chapters describing McFarlane’s adventures in journalism, not because they weren’t entertaining or informative about a vibrant time in newspaper work, but because there wasn’t anything about the Hardy Boys in them. But that was part of what the book was meant to do. Show that the author of the first twenty-one Hardy Boys books was more than a hack; he was a writer of note.
Frank Freeman’s poetry has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry and The New York Quarterly, his reviews in America Magazine, Commonweal and The Weekly Standard, among others. He writes from Saco, Maine, and hopes to someday visit Ireland and her bookstores again.